On the Death of a Church

Iglesia TrinidadIt was the first time that I had walked into the doors and sat near the back for the duration of the worship service. Being a pastor, I am typically at the front. I usually have tasks to do, responsibilities to which to attend. But today was different. I was not there as their pastor, I was a member of the congregation. I had no particular responsibilities. Nothing to read. Nothing to preach. Nothing to say. I could pray with my own words, not words for the congregation. I could sing without having to think about what is next. I could listen to the sermon instead of delivering it.

“Closing worship service” was written on the front of the bulletin, which was white today, although it is usually ivory colored paper. The images which are usually black and white prints of woodcuts now bears a color image of the church building.

I came in after the service had already started, and I simply pulled myself into a pew in the back, not wishing to make a scene. How would the people reäct to my presence, I wondered to myself. After all, it had only been a month since I delivered my farewell sermon.

My pastorate had been brief and unremarkable. Not quite three years and I was not able to help the ministry to turn a corner. The ministry had always been financially insecure and struggled with growing indigenous leadership. I knew what the problems were, and right after arriving I got to work to try to address them. Yet not quite three years later, here we were, holding the final worship service.

I listened to the eighty year old pipe organ, and looked at the cathedral ceiling. It was hard enough a month ago when I left, I thought to myself, and now I have to say goodbye all over again. But this time it wasn’t just goodbye, it was to close the casket and drop it in the ground. After today, the organ would be silent, and the Word will be heard from one less pulpit, and the faithful cannot gather around that same table any longer.

The minister of the classis leading the service spoke of the ministry’s history and all of the people who worked tirelessly throughout its history. The time came to acknowledge the previous ministers and although I was praying desperately to allow me to sit, the words, “Will Matthew please stand” echoed throughout the sanctuary and I stood up, not wanting the members to see me, for fear of how they may respond to my presence.

There were hugs and tears and understandable anger, as the congregation had only received one week notice of the upcoming closure of their church.

***

I understand that churches are born and churches die but the church of Christ will remain forever. I understand that God was there before Iglesia Trinidad and that God will be there after. I know that, although the church is closing its doors, God will continue to work in the hearts and lives of the members and adherents and that God will continue to work in that neighborhood. Despite all of this, though, I cannot help but think that God sheds a tear over every church that closes its doors.

***

Casting blame is an easy thing to do, and is done too often. So is shrugging off one’s role in the event. On the one hand, we all bear responsibility for its death, and on the other hand, none of us truly do. It is a hard place to be.

Humans and plants and animals all have a lifespan, some longer than others, but nothing that we can see, taste, or touch is immortal. Churches are no different. Some churches last longer than others, but no church is eternal, except of course, for The Church, that is, God’s people across space and time. Fortunately, The Church is not dependent upon the existence of a little ministry on the near south side of Milwaukee.

 

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13 thoughts on “On the Death of a Church

  1. The Church is not dependent upon the presence of Iglesia Trinidad, but the Church will be diminished by its absence. I think a week’s notice was a rather heartless move on the part of the classis.

    There must be a way to keep small ministries alive–God wouldn’t create so many if God did not love them so–while also fulfilling Biblical demands to treat the ministers called to tend them justly and fairly. I have often wondered if it has something to do with having the classis pay the ministers (by assessment, I suppose) instead of the congregations, so that struggling churches would not have to temper “what we need” with “what we can afford.” But the fact is that the Church needs to figure this out and not just shrug its shoulders and close things.

    My prayers are with you and the congregation in your time of loss.

    • Thank you, James. I greatly appreciate your passion for keeping small ministries alive and validating their ministry. We need more voices like this! We profess to believe in the parity of ministry (which includes churches), and I am afraid that our actions, many times, do not reflect this.

  2. Pingback: On the Death of a Church | thealreadynotyet.com

  3. A church dying has a more adverse effect on me than someone leaving the faith. The former is a living breathing entity that often does a lot of good where the latter is just a way chemicals and electricity are arranged in someone’s brain.

    When I was in the faith (at least when I was as an adult) I identified first and foremost as a member of a particular church and only after that as a Christian. I found out the only church I ever loved died and even though I was far from it geographically and spiritually it still was a sad thing. The church was small and not growing even when I was there. But I have this feeling that sometimes when a church is dying it’s because it’s doing the right thing, not selling out or tickling people’s ears. The economic model the church in America runs on doesn’t leave much flexibility for people who want to try something more radical.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Matthew. I kind of sat on it before getting around to it but am glad I saved and read it. Thank you for your work at Iglesia Trinidad and may God bless you in wherever and whatever it is He uses you next.

  5. David, I have no idea what your frame of reference is for Matthew’s post, but this was one of the most vitriolic comments I’ve ever read, completely inappropriate, and completely uncalled for. Very seldom is a single pastor responsible for the closing of a church, and I know Matthew. This would NEVER be the case with him. Even if it appears as though there is one person to blame, there are always other factors that contributed. I am in shock over your comment.

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